Developing community-led public libraries

As its authors explain in the introduction, the intent of Developing community-led public libraries: evidence from the UK and Canada (Ashgate, 2013) is to

provide a practical road map for library staff to begin integrating and sustaining community-led approaches to libraries. (p. 1)

The book synthesizes findings from two projects: Open to All?, from the UK, and the Working Together Project, from Canada.

 The body of each chapter reflects this bilateral structure. Each chapter concludes with a “Helpful Hints” list.

I

The vision this book presents is rather exciting. To give a flavour of the argument, let me focus on one pair of figures from the book. The first summarises ‘traditional planning’ under the following headingscommunity assessment; needs identification; service planning; delivery; and
evaluation. The second figures summarises ‘community-led planning’ under the same headings.

To give an example of the contrast between these two models, consider the points listed under the ‘community assessment’ heading. In the first figure they run as follows:

  • staff reviews
  • demographic data
  • library use statistics
  • comment cards
  • community survey results

and in the second:

  • staff review all of the traditional measures and…
  • staff spend time in community developing relationships with community members
  • staff hear from community about what is important to them.

To give a little more of the flavour of the book, we can look briefly at the chapter entitled ‘Outreach, community development and partnerships’. Here the authors contrast the traditional outreach approach with the idea of co-production.

The argument in favour of the latter rests on the view that

the conscious or unconscious maintenance of library service users as passive recipients is not just a waste of their skills and time; it is also the reason why systemic change does not happen. When people are never asked to give anything back, and when the assets they represent are ignored or deliberately side-lined, they atrophy. (p. 90)

According to the authors, co-production can “unleash a wave of innovation about how library services are designed and delivered and how public goods are achieved, by expecting professionals to work alongside their communities”.

II

The book has some weaknesses. It’s fond of the view that “Librarians are not the experts on what our communities need or want in terms of library services — the community is the expert”. Yet the book never explains with any rigour what is meant by ‘community’ here. In any case, the view is an exaggeration: how expert can people be about something they have been excluded from? The whole premiss of the book rests on the idea that exclusion from information, ideas, and resources can put people at a disadvantage: this implies, surely, some limitation on their expertise.

In fact, it seems that elsewhere in the book the authors themselves accept this objection. For example, when they refer to “the dismissive attitude toward ICT* by some excluded people” they don’t see this attitude as “expertise”: instead they confidently (and, to my mind, sensibly) assert that it constitutes “a key barrier that needs to be overcome in order to motivate these groups” (my italics). That would be the librarian as expert speaking then.

Somewhat ironically, it is the chapter on technology that seems to me least satisfactory. The underlying conception seems very much Web 1.0. In view of the authors’ enthusiasm for co-production, one might expect an emphasis on social media – but there is no such treatment. 

The discussion of e-books includes this extraordinary paragraph:

Without wishing to sound like a Luddite, e-books could become the final nail in the public library coffin. Library staff are being replaced by RFID (self-service) technology and if books are replaced by e-books then the rationale for providing public libraries will disappear. Publishers have identified the threat to their business model which e-book loans from public libraries pose and have started to cut off or limit the supply by insisting that downloads must take place on library premises or that only one copy of an e-book can be borrowed at a time. Alternatively it could be that legal complications around copyright and digital lending spike the e-book revolution before it causes any lasting damage to public libraries. (p. 114)

My reading of the dangling participle (“wishing”) is that it is the author of this passage that does not wish to sound like a Luddite. If so, the only answer can be, if you don’t wish to sound like a Luddite, don’t express Luddite views! Anyone who knows what Nick Ludd stood for will recognise the above argument is precisely Luddite.

III

As one will see from the title of the book – and indeed from the quotation immediately above – the word “public” is central. The term is ambiguous: it can mean “open to the public” or “owned by the state”.

I imagine that the authors simply take the term to mean both. I wish they had explored the ambiguity more. The terms “co-operatives” and “mutuality” do not appear in the index. 

IV

Despite its limitations,  Developing community-led public libraries is a valuable book – one that offers the promise of a re-energisation of library services. At an RRP of £50 (£45 from the publisher’s website) for, say, a whole day’s reading, this resource offers the most cost-effective staff development imaginable.

Finally, a word about the death of the monograph. I keep hearing reports of it, yet somehow publishers such as Ashgate keep sending me monographs – including some very good – and well produced – ones. How can this be?

The monograph is dead: long live the …

* ICT stands for information and communications technology.

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4 Responses to “Developing community-led public libraries”

  1. I seem to have a full schedule of editing monographs, so I’m a little befuddled by that assertion, too!

    I’ve experienced self-checkout RFID in a public library. It’s a time saver, but it represents only a tiny part of a librarian’s service to the customer. In fact it’s one of the least important. I’d rather librarians be available to answer questions, produce community events, thoughtfully maintain collections, and so on — things for which they ARE experts.

    I’m curious if the authors of this book believe that “non-community-led” public libraries don’t take community opinion into consideration? Do they think that libraries don’t tailor events and services to community interests? That has not been my experience. However, I can see the validity of the idea of the community as passive consumers, and the benefit of changing that dynamic.

    I think there is a lot of hand wringing over e-books, but the reality is that there is a wide swath of the population who don’t have or want this technology. People who can’t afford an e-reader are the same folks who are more likely to use the public library, don’t you think? I see many (I assume) lower-income people, and elderly people, using the library. Even some of those, like my father or many of my colleagues, who are computer literate choose paper books for a variety of reasons.

    Perhaps I’m biased — I use my local public library many times each week, participate in events, and have recently applied to join the board of the Friends of the Library. But I see at least my local library as already doing all of the things listed above — seeking relationships with the community and dialoguing with the public. I can’t say if this is a function of living in a relatively small city — I wonder if patron numbers makes a difference.

    • Thanks – as always! Think from the authors’ point of view the relevant quotation (in turn a quotation from the Working Together project report) is: “Public libraries are, at present, only superficially open to all. They provide mainly passive ‘access’ to materials and resources and they have service priorities and resourcing strategies which work in favour of existing library users rather than excluded or disadvantaged communities’ (p. 2) – that’s where they’re coming from.

    • Again I wonder about the city size factor. I perceive our library as working to serve disadvantaged communities. I hear them regularly facilitating borrowing for people confined to elder care facilities; they provide a bookmobile service three times a week in area parks for children who can’t otherwise access the library/to further encourage reading; they provide classes for non-native English speakers; and so on. I don’t have a sense of whether my library is unusual, or whether these aren’t the kinds of services the authors meant, or if there is a US-UK/Canada difference. This is all not to say that I disagree with the idea of the passivity of users and that underlying assumption in the decision-making process. Perhaps I’m just unclear on the terms being used.

    • Thanks. To my ears, that all sounds like good, inclusive, practice.

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